Future

When Irma Was Born, The Making Of A Mega-Storm

The origins of this particularly powerful Caribbean storm can be traced back to an El Nino no-show.

Preparing for the worst in Lake Worth, Florida.
Preparing for the worst in Lake Worth, Florida.
Brian K. Sullivan

Irma has ripped a path of misery through the Caribbean and is aiming at Florida, but the first seed for its monster size and force was planted on the other side of the world more than six months ago.

It happened innocently enough, when a widely anticipated El Nino failed to materialize over the Pacific Ocean. In time, that cleared a path for a hurricane to form in the Atlantic that grew to the size of the state of New York with winds topping 185 miles per hour.

"The odds of getting an Irma in an El Nino year are really low," said Phil Klotzbach, lead author of Colorado State University's seasonal hurricane forecast. Peruvian fishermen back in the 1600s gave the recurring meteorological event its name, Little Boy or Christ Child in Spanish, when they noticed the tropical Pacific warming around Christmas in some years.

El Nino occurs when the Pacific heats up and flusters the atmosphere, setting off a chain reaction that causes wind shear across the Atlantic. Shear is wind blowing in different directions or speeds at various altitudes, and it can be Kryptonite for hurricanes. As powerful as they are, tropical cyclones have delicate structures. Shear can tear them apart. A budding storm can't get started and an established storm can't get strong.

Beasts like Irma churn out from one of the tropical waves that slide off the coast of Africa. These troughs of low pressure, sometimes just a ragged collection of thunderstorms, begin to roll off the continent in late spring. That's a reason the Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.

The waves are the seedlings, said Rick Knabb, hurricane expert at the Weather Channel in Atlanta and until last year director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "Hurricanes don't just pop out of nowhere."

They need warm water for fuel, which this summer has provided. The water in the tropical Atlantic, from the Leeward Islands to Cape Verde, has been about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1 Celsius) higher than normal in the area where Irma is prowling, Klotzbach said.

Irma also got a boost from a deep, moist atmosphere. Earlier in the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, dry air usually blows off Africa's Sahara Desert, sometimes carrying dust that can be seen from space and can give the Miami sky a hazy cast. That wraps into storms, sapping them of strength.

"Around Aug. 20, the dust tends to die down," Klotzbach said. And then hurricane season begins, building to its Sept. 10 statistical peak, according to the National Hurricane Center.

All the ingredients combined to create one of the strongest storms ever to rise out of the Atlantic Ocean and the most powerful to form outside of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

For those keeping score, however, Irma still can't be called the most intense ever recorded in the Atlantic. That honor is held by 1980's Allen, which packed winds of 190 miles per hour.

But the season isn't over. Normally, the 11th named storm doesn't show up until Nov. 23, according to the hurricane center. Irma is No. 9, and 10 and 11, Jose and Katia, are already here.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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